Neftali Feliz, Closer

It didn’t take Texas long to come to the conclusion that Frank Francisco was no longer their best relief pitcher. After two blown saves by Francisco, Neftali Feliz is in as the new ninth inning relief ace for the Rangers.

Over the years, we’ve talked a lot about the relative value of starters and relievers. Even the best relief pitchers in the game are only worth about as much as an average starting pitcher, due to the drastic quantity difference in innings pitched. So, in general, we usually feel like a pitcher should be given as many chances as possible to stick in the rotation before he gets pigeonholed as a full time reliever.

However, there are situations where it makes sense to take a high quality arm and stick him in the bullpen, and I think this is one of those situations.

As Jeremy Greenhouse just showed, not every pitcher responds the same way when shifted to the bullpen. There are pitchers whose stuff plays up in relief more than the average, and they get a significant velocity (and performance) boost when throwing shorter outings.

For this class of pitcher, the relative difference between what they can be as a starter and a reliever is significant enough to overcome the drop in innings pitched. Joe Nathan is the classic example, as he went from a middling back of the rotation prospect to one of the best relievers in baseball after the move.

There are quite a few reasons to think Feliz may be one of these guys. He’s had trouble sustaining his velocity before, and his questionable command of strikeout stuff make it unlikely that he’d be able to work more than five or six innings in most starts before he ran his pitch count up. In his entire professional career, he’s pitched into the seventh inning just once in 53 starts (though, to be fair, Atlanta and Texas were both actively keeping his workload down).

If Feliz is one of these pitchers whose stuff is significantly better in relief than as a starter, then Texas made the right move. They’re a contender in 2010, and the value of a marginal win to them this year is extremely high. Meanwhile, they actually have significant rotation depth, with Derek Holland hanging out in Triple-A waiting for an opening among their starting five. Given his current state of development, Feliz wouldn’t be a significant improvement over what the Rangers already have in the rotation, but there’s a very good chance that he’s their best reliever right now.

The present value of using Feliz as a reliever is quite high. Given that the other option is to have him in Triple-A attempting to develop into a long term starting pitcher, a proposition that is questionable to begin with, I think the Rangers are properly weighing present and future value here. Feliz is a big time talent, but there were good reasons to think his future was in the bullpen regardless of where he pitched this year, and he’ll most help the Rangers try to win the AL West by closing games in 2010.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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